August 14, 2015 · animated dreamworks fantasy review

How to Make a Sequel

The first entry into the How to Train Your Dragon universe soared effortlessly into the upper reaches of my chart of favourite films. To this viewer, it was a defining example of what animated cinematic storytelling can be—the embrace of the opportunities afforded in executing breathtaking visual sequences while doing so with gusto and artistry in conveying visceral emotion. Though it had a simple (and not at all groundbreaking) story line, I was drawn in by its heart and sincerity. Judging from its box office run, it’s not a stretch to say many audiences were as well.

All high praise indeed, and really then, attempting to follow How to Train Your Dragon with a sequel that rises even higher seemed impossible.

In several ways, How to Train Your Dragon 2 accomplishes this feat. Its technical animation is stunning in detail and sophistication. The scenes of flight, though inevitably lacking somewhat in emotional weight compared to their counterparts in the first film, are visual masterpieces in cinematography and computer generated imagery. The backdrop of lush flora, the precise character and dragon expressions, the fantastic lighting, and lively colour palette are markedly upgraded visuals in this entry to the series.

John Powell’s fantastic score from the first is matched here, though sadly none of the new themes reverberated with me in producing as much wonder as say, Test Flight did. Still, motifs both old and new are incorporated with apt timing and enough emotional texture—from deliberately delicate to triumphantly bombast—to carry several scenes throughout the entirety of the film.

At its core, the first movie was the story of an almost childlike discovery of friendship and trust in a strange creature, and now inseparable companion—both on the part of Hiccup and Toothless. The sequel advances this into a story of the discovery of personal meaning and maturity for the duo, in an incredible exemplification of the hero’s journey in a coming of age adventure. The parallels between Hiccup’s and Toothless’s respective journeys adds welcome depth and impact to the story, and the movie intertwines them with stirring heartfeltness and resonance.

How to Train Your Dragon 2‘s potential to be a glorious example of how to make a sequel however must be tempered by the fact that it has flaws in its storytelling that simply were not present in the first. Most immediately, the relative subtlety of humour in the first film is completely cast aside, replaced with unwelcome and sometimes crude jokes that interrupt the flow of more than one scene. Most disappointingly of all, the pacing of the story and its delivery is far looser than it could have been. Though still by far excellent, it is guilty of leaping from one story element to another in a far more staccato manner than its predecessor—a masterpiece with its methodical and organic development of Hiccup’s and Toothless’s relationship in a wonderfully fluid story.

These criticisms mar what otherwise very well might have been a film that joins the first as a lesson in the cinematic joy and bliss animated movies are capable of, and arguably even perfect for, delivering. Still, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so very close to doing so that like the first, to miss it is to miss what makes the cinema and animated films in particular such an extraordinary medium.